“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
The modern musician cares about time, probably because we’re so often reminded, in ways both funny and sad, of how little we actually have.
Musicians who feel the pressure of time look outside themselves for shortcuts to success. As a desperate and naïve musician in New York ten years ago, I wrote a lengthy email to guitarist Marc Ribot, looking for secrets.
He was one of my favorite performers while I was living in New York, and I’d go to see him on a regular basis. In my fantasies, he would direct me to a blind mage who would hand me a sacred parchment titled the “6 Commandments for Being a Successful Musician” or train me in ancient techniques of “making it” in a Karate Kid-style montage.
As could be expected, Ribot’s reply was short and lacked in silver bullets: “Find somewhere you like, get involved in the music scene, and work your ass off.” There was no comfort or imparted wisdom there that I could see at the time. It only left me more frustrated, as I assumed he was just carefully guarding ‘the secret’, when I should have instead appreciated the time he took to answer a random fan’s email.
Ten years later, I finally understand Ribot’s advice: A musician’s path to success can be learned but it can’t be taught. How do you become a master at something? You do it until you have mastered it.
How to Become a Master in 10,000 Easy Steps
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
The Beatles as we know them probably wouldn’t exist if not for an enterprising German strip-club owner named Bruno. In 1960 – before they invaded anything – Bruno gave the teen-aged Beatles something better than a big break or a big payday: experience.
Bruno invited The Beatles to be the live soundtrack to his Hamburg, Germany club’s non-stop strip show. Between 1960 and 1962, The Beatles played an amazing 1,200 times in German strip clubs like Bruno’s, sometimes for as long as eight hours at a time to ever-rotating audiences.
Malcolm Gladwell tells this and other stories of ungodly repetition in his book Outliers, in a chapter called “The 10,000 Hour Rule”. The Beatles, a young Bill Gates, and the elite violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music all had one thing in common: at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s study of the violinists, which birthed the theory, also revealed that 10,000 hours of practice nullified any inherent talent advantage between players. In other words, 10,000 hours of practice is all that stands between you and mastery, whether you’re cloned from a mixture of Mozart and Charlie Parker DNA, or have never picked up an instrument in your life.
If you haven’t done the math yet, 10,000 hours is a frightening amount of time to practice. Two-and-a-half hours every single day would get you there in just under 11 years. And Todd Kovell will tell you how we practice is as important as how much we practice.
Kovell teaches bass, cello, and music theory in Seattle, Washington. (Fun fact: Kovell was a college bandmate of John McEntire, profiled in the April issue of Scientist). He’s also tracked his practice hours across a variety of disciplines, such as writing, reading, individual and group performance, and ear training, since the year 2000. It was a recommendation that came from a teacher, and the process eventually forced him to rethink and rebuild his practice habits altogether.
Even if Kovell could go back in time to catalog his first dozen years of musical practice, he might not want to. “I was the typical practicer – I knew you had to do it a lot to get good, but I didn’t actively try to get better. It was just ‘I have to do this a lot, I’m not that good, so I’ll do it again’. I think that’s an early mistake that people make. It’s not that you don’t need to do it again, it’s that you need to actively be trying to make it better than the time before.”
Actively trying to get better begins with eliminating both inside and outside distractions while practicing. Turn televisions, phones, and Internets off, but more importantly, keep your mind on the music in front of you. Focusing on practice means practicing focus.
Kovell says the best analogies for musical practice are exercise and saving money. Just as there’s no natural way to get a gym body overnight or get rich quick, the best practice habits are built on small but consistent and fundamentally sound gains. You may be better off trying to get six good ten-minute practices a day than one hour-long one. An hour is hard to come by, an hour of focus even more so.
“I always tell my students if you want to bench press 500 pounds, you don’t put 500 pounds on the bar and just push hard and do that every day… You’re growing neurons and connections, and they grow very slowly. And it’s like a plant – it just needs a little bit of water regularly. And you can’t overwater it and you can’t underwater it.”
These neurons are responsible for the ballistic movement in our fingers when we’re playing an instrument. What we sometimes refer to as ‘muscle memory’ – a term Kovell dislikes – is plain old memory. If we practice faster than we’re effectively able to, or practice while unfocused, we’re giving our neurons bad water: introducing mistakes, practicing those mistakes, and ultimately, internalizing them, so that they come out when we perform.
“If you can do something 1,000 times without any mistakes, then you’re going to be able to call it up the same way every time… Everybody’s goal is to get faster for some reason. What’s ironic is that in order to play faster you have to practice slower, because going slower allows you to be as close to 100% accurate as you can.”
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that even the most dedicated practitioners usually take at least a decade to acquire their 10,000 hours of practice. But you won’t even get hired to play your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah if you only ever practice in your room and never try to represent yourself in the marketplace. How will you handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune while you try to sell your music to the world?
Cockroaches Get to Carnegie Hall
“There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.”
There’s no set amount of time after which artists start earning a steady income, but we can be certain that ‘overnight successes’ are a myth. So are ‘big breaks’.
After 12 years and 5 albums, Brooklyn band The National is finally on a consistent upward slope. Promoting a new album (Trouble Will Find Me) and tour documentary (Mistaken For Strangers), the band will soon play Brooklyn’s 18,000-seat Barclays Center. But lead singer Matt Berninger sees the majority of their early years as good lessons during bad times, with no inkling of future success, as he recently told Grantland’s Steven Hyden:
“We’ve developed in the shadows; we learned how to be good songwriters and a good live band while people weren’t really paying attention, which was healthy for us. I look on it fondly [that way], not like, ‘Oh, those were the good old days.’ They were awful, and if someone were to honestly say I had to go back, start over, but it was gonna still lead to this thing — if somebody had told us then that you were going to spend this many nights in youth hostels or playing this many shows when nobody’s there, and you’re gonna sleep in this van this many nights, and you’re not going to make any money at all until eight or nine years in, I don’t think I would’ve done it.”
Later in the interview, Berninger reverses course, smiling and admitting that yes – he would still do it all again.
Comedian Louis C.K. first dared to try comedy at an open mic night 29 years ago. It went so well that he didn’t try it again for two years. Today, C.K. is an Emmy-winning television star that sells out standup tours in minutes, and is one of the most respected artists in his field. But his early years were filled with plenty of bright, shining failures.
C.K.’s 2001 directorial debut, the Chris Rock vehicle Pootie Tang, was a critical and commercial bomb. His first attempt at his own show, 2006’s Lucky Louie, lasted only 13 episodes before being canned by HBO. C.K. even readily admits his early standup was lackluster for over a decade. Like Todd Kovell, he eventually changed the way he practiced – rebuilding his act and the type of comedian he was – and worked on that for at least another decade.
Just as you would practice playing an instrument for 10,000 hours in order to master it, you may need to ‘practice’ your career for a decade or more in order to coax steady and significant financial gain out of it. And just like with any practice, things don’t get noticeably better every day you do it. Some days you’ll even take a step backwards.
Not everyone’s future in the arts looks the same, but almost everyone’s past does: years of obscurity, half-empty rooms with people talking over your set, and even a bad review or seven. No one gets it right the first time. Or even the first five times. Give it a minute.
The Long Game
“You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clean dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person performs a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Professional poker players see life not as a series of games, but as one long game, with multiple sittings. They don’t live and die by individual outcomes or define themselves by the inevitable streaks of both bad and good luck within a lifetime of play.
It’s a perspective musicians could stand to adopt. I’ve played hometown shows with the same band I’ve kept together for five years, thinking we’ve worked hard to build something, only to feel crushed while looking out on an audience of five people. Conversely, we’ve been lucky enough to reach the finals of two separate national battle-of-the-bands competitions – ‘big breaks’ I was sure would significantly increase our audience if nothing else – ultimately winding up with nothing more than a few good stories to tell. It’s taken me a long time to realize that neither outcome affects my ability to pick up my instrument for more practice, or to write another song.
As much as the producers of American Idol would like you to believe it, opportunities, audiences, and incomes rarely skyrocket after some make-believe inciting event. They don’t even necessarily grow steadily year after year. They zigzag chaotically early on, spawning just as many false starts as exaggerated reports of demise. Our only choice is to expand our view to see the whole forest, instead of worrying about all those pesky trees.
At the same time, we can disabuse ourselves of the tired clichés that scare us into trying to shortcut our process in the first place. Instead of thinking we have to practice our scales and modes for 2 hours everyday, we can want to challenge ourselves to practice focusing for just twenty minutes at a time (six times a day). Instead of seeing a miniscule audience as a sure sign we stink, we can see it as a challenge to connect with listeners on a more intimate level. Instead of seeing early tours as money-losing ventures and a series of floors to sleep on, we can see them as opportunities to get tons of real-world practice in short periods of time. And instead of ‘paying our dues’, we could be ‘earning our experience’.
In the end, our success may not look anything like what we first dreamed up. The Goo Goo Dolls started as a run-of-the-mill punk band before becoming the heroes of 90s lite FM radio. Danny Elfman traded the orchestrated new wave of Oingo Boingo for a prolific film-scoring career. Todd Kovell had his own rock-star dreams once upon a time. After spending a cumulative 10,000 hours learning a musical language, he’s a talented teacher able to support a family on his income, with enough time and resources left over to do things like this:
I may not have got the response I hoped for from Marc Ribot, but I recently got some good advice from someone else I trust:
“There is no surefire ‘strategy’ for success for the arena in which you have chosen to live your life. There is only work, and its relative worth to you. If you fell into a coma tomorrow and woke up to a zombie apocalypse 28 Days Later-style, would you still be inspired to do what you do? If so, then do only that. Don’t focus on press, marketing, elevator pitches, promo photos, etc. Don’t solicit opinions, send out demos, or have meetings for strategy. Do not build snares and traps around your work that will only keep you from your process.
“Your body of work, if you focus exclusively on it, will cultivate all the talent you need, the habits you need, the direction you need to distinguish yourself from the rest. Never tell, only show, and even then, only show for your own benefit and education. Whether you want to be great at what you do or popular and well-liked and well-compensated for what you do, they are completely different questions, often with opposite answers. If they ever meet, it’s by accident. Don’t attempt to answer one question with the answer to another. Stop thinking and planning, just do. When you are dead, so too will your plans and thoughts be. The songs and stories you create will stick around much longer.”
Some things you have to learn yourself and can’t be taught. This comes from a letter I wrote to my 10-years younger self.
Good luck on your journey.